Okay, here we go on the last chapter. Grateful thanks to all of you who have read, reviewed and faved it - I really appreciate it. Thanks also to Peter for his many helpful suggestions.

I hope you enjoy it.


Chapter 17

The silence was surprising. It hadn't been what I'd expected as Mr Cataliades and I re-materialised somewhere inside the palace - I had no idea where. The light was a dim violet color, which suggested that the main power had shorted out and this was emergency lighting. I looked around and saw it was a bedroom; not as large and upscale as Eric's and mine, but still nice. There was a briefcase on the table, and papers spread around it, and I wasn't surprised when Mr C said, "I thought my bedroom would be the safest place to start from. We're on the first floor, and I don't think there's any damage down here. Now, I think you need to dry off a little."

He went to his bathroom and brought me out a towel. In all the excitement I'd forgotten how wet I was and I gratefully pulled the amulet-hairclip out, gave it to Mr C and dried my hair, taking a few minutes to catch my breath after the intensity of the last hours. There was nothing I could do about my soggy clothes, but he offered me a zippered windcheater with elasticated cuffs, which I took into the bathroom. I stripped off my blouse and when I pulled the dry jacket on I found that if I pushed the sleeves up the elastic kept them from hanging over my hands, even if they bulged out like the sleeves of old historical costumes I'd seen on TV.

When I came out he nodded his approval, then said "Now, can you detect Mr Northman?"

I closed my eyes and put out every mental and emotional feeler I'd got, holding my breath, praying that Eric would still be there for me to find. C'mon Eric, c'mon …

There! Just at the edge of my awareness, a faint hint of our bond. He wasn't mind-speaking, but I could definitely feel the bond, hot and pulsing and overlaid with worry, even though it was strangely muffled. My eyes flew open. "Got him! He's there, but he's hurting - I can feel it!"

"That's hardly surprising after what the late Queen told us. If he attempted to attack her while she was wearing the reversus amulet, it would have rebounded on him, and I doubt if he held back in his attack, which means he would feel the full force of the backlash. Do you know if he was planning on using any particular weapon in his attack?"

I nodded guiltily. "Yeah, I gave him that dagger I showed you with the fancy name; The silver and bone one."

The demon frowned. "Gae Bulga? Oh dear, that's not good. It inflicts a particularly nasty injury."

"But surely if he pulled it out he'd be healing wouldn't he? He could do that - the handle's wood, not silver."

"That would be the case if it was a normal silver dagger, but it isn't. Gae Bulga was designed to splinter into many shards, each of which anchors itself in the flesh of the victim, and each one has to be dug out individually. That's probably what you're feeling - the splinters being removed. But there is another possibility; we have to consider that he may be under … coercion of some sort."

Oh Jeez. "You mean someone might be torturing him, don't you?" He nodded solemnly, and I had a sudden brief memory of being in the hands of Fae torturers myself. Eric had been chained with silver at the same time and, although he could feel my pain, he wouldn't allow me to feel his and had closed the bond down - something only the vampire of a bonded pair could do. I realised that must be what he was doing at the moment - the stupid, heroic Viking didn't want me to feel whatever he was suffering, even though a little was leaking through.

I concentrated, and found that Eric's pain was definitely coming in short bursts, but that didn't help any - someone was working him over methodically, but whether friend or foe I couldn't tell. "We'd better go find him."

"Do you get any sense of where he is?"

I concentrated again. "Uh-huh. He's up above us somewhere. But he's in a lot of pain - we need to get to him. C'mon." I started for the door, but the big demon kept hold of my arm.

"Allow me." He went to the door, and paused before he opened it. I realised he was listening for minds, just as I did. It was strange to be with another telepath, but one who was infinitely more skilled than I was. He never seemed to show any sign of being overloaded by others' mental voices, so his shields had to be awesome...

When he was satisfied, he opened the door and we crept out into the hallway. The lighting was the same dim color as in the bedroom, and it flickered slightly, with a faint hum. As we moved along the deserted passage I reached out with my extra sense, but there was no mind within range. The whole place felt eerily empty, and our footsteps sounded unexpectedly loud.

"Where do you think everyone is?" I couldn't help lowering my voice a bit - it didn't feel right to speak at normal volume, and Mr C's tones were equally hushed as he answered me.

"I imagine the building was evacuated when the tornado hit; a lot of the staff are human, and wouldn't be able to survive a storm of that ferocity. They wouldn't know that Bertine was limiting it to the third floor."

She'd done a pretty good job; there was no sign of damage as we crossed the marble foyer and moved towards the staircase - Mr C didn't think using the elevator would be a good idea, in case of more power failures, and he didn't want to teleport us up there, as we didn't know what we would be facing.

I did notice a few signs of hasty departure as we passed along the hallways; doors left swinging open, giving glimpses into offices and meeting-rooms where papers were strewn across desks and tables; a computer left on with the screensaver rotating silently; a photocopier still churning out documents, paper overflowing onto the floor ... I wondered if Amelia had left, or if she nice and warm and safe somewhere in the basement with her Were.

We moved up onto the second floor, and here we started to see some signs of mayhem - cracks in the ceiling, and in a few places chunks of plaster had broken from the walls, whitening the carpets with dust. It was also noisier and colder, as the wind from outside had made it down here and was blowing though the hallways, snatching at the pictures that still hung on the walls and rattling the doors on their hinges. I was glad of the windcheater.

At one corner it looked like a whole chunk of the level above us had come crashing down through the floor, filling the hallway and piling right up to ceiling, almost blocking the hole it had made. It was between us and the next set of stairs, so we had to pause while Mr C cleared us a path. I suggested he teleport us, but he pointed out that we couldn't see what was round the next corner - the floor might have caved in for all we knew, and he didn't want to take the risk.

He wouldn't let me help, saying he could work more quickly if I wasn't in the way, so I stood back and watched, keeping my mental ears wide open for anything at all, calling out to Eric periodically and sending him reassurance and strength. It was pretty difficult trying to broadcast to him, trawl for other minds and listen for any hint of his mindvoice all at the same time.

Even though he was a big man, I'd had no idea how strong Mr C was until I saw him lifting chunks of masonry the size of a washing-machine and moving them to the side with almost no effort. No wonder he'd been able to stop Freyda in her tracks …

I shied away from that memory and distracted myself by looking up at the jagged hole left in the ceiling, trying to see what conditions were like up above. I could just see bits of the sky round the edges of the wreckage, and it seemed to be clearing; although the wind was still pretty loud the clouds had mostly gone. Bertine must have called her pet storm off … I went back to scanning with my mind, and Mr C was just levering a long, mangled, fluorescent light-fitting out of our way when I got a mental blast that was so strong I gasped.

"Sookie! Sookie, can you hear me? For God's sake, answer me!" It was Barry, and the note of panic was quite unmistakeable.

"Barry?" I said it out loud before I realised what I was doing, and Mr C looked up at once. I tried again, mentally. "What's wrong?

"Everything! All hell's broken loose here! I'm hurt - badly hurt. We were just sitting minding our own business and all of a sudden Queen Freyda's men were everywhere, pushing and shoving and shouting, and they made us all go into the dining room and then wanted to take me away."

Oh crap. "Did they say where?"

"No, but Billy-Rae wouldn't let 'em take me anyway, and they staked him without even blinking!" I could feel his horror, even with everything he must have seen working for the vampires all this time. "Bruno went apeshit and ripped a guard's arm off, one of 'em took a cut at him but hit me, the Louisiana vamps heard the shouting and came barrelling in, Stan and Joe have turned up and now there's blood and bodies everywhere. Are you with Eric? Can he help us, because we really need it!"

"Where are you?"

"I'm hiding under the table, but I'm bleeding like a stuck pig; they'll find me when the fighting stops - help me, Sookie - I don't wanna die!"

"Hold on." I looked up at Mr C who was standing in front of me, registering concern. He clearly couldn't hear what was being said and I didn't have time to try and get a handle on the ins-and-outs of three-way telepathic communication, but he must have seen from my face that something was wrong.

I blocked Barry's frantic broadcast for a minute and filled the lawyer in. I could tell he was torn; he wanted to stay with me and see me safe, but he wanted to help Barry too. It was a horrible position for him to be in, but there was only one thing he could really do, and we both knew it.

"You'd better go to him. He needs you more than I do right now."

"I'm not sure - Mr Northman would want me to stay with you in case of trouble."

I was so tempted to cling to him and say, 'yes, don't leave me, keep me safe,' but I couldn't. It was the sensible thing to do, but it wasn't the right thing to do. "There's no-one here at the moment - everyone's run away. And Barry's your family. Go on, you can teleport him out of there and see to his injury, then come back when he's safe. I'll take it from here - I can probably get through the gap you've already made anyways, if I breathe in a little."

"Do you really think ..." it wasn't like him to be so uncertain, but his duty to me was warring with his duty to his family. I knew how much his relatives meant to him; he'd been truly grieved when his niece Gladiola had been killed and anyone could have seen how badly he'd been affected when he thought Bertine was in danger.

I manned up and said, "yes, I do. I'm gonna head straight on up and find Eric. I'll keep a careful watch out for any minds, but I think I'll be okay." The only person I really had to worry about was Bill, and I was pretty certain Pam would have dealt with him. Yes, he was technically a little older and stronger than she was, but I doubted if that would count for much. She was an Eric-trained fighter, he was a coward; you do the math ...

"Well, if you're sure..."

"I'm sure. Give me a minute to let him know you're coming - we don't want him freaking out if you suddenly appear next to him."

"A good thought."

I called Barry and told him, and his gratitude was almost as strong as his fear. I shut him off and turned to Mr C. "We're good. You can go get him." A thought struck me. "But you'll need to reassure him - he sounds a mite panicky. And you'll probably have to get him to a hospital pretty quick."

He raised an eyebrow, as though mildly offended. "Don't worry, I'll take care of him. He is my great-great-great grandson, after all. "

"Yeah, well, you might want to consider telling him that at some point. I'm not sure how long I can keep it a secret from him, and anyway, it's not right that I know and he doesn't."

He looked a little startled, as though this had never occurred to him, but then he nodded to me and vanished from sight, leaving me on my own. I sighed, cast out my sixth sense just to check that I really was alone, then pushed back my sleeves and started shifting chunks of rubble.

I'd been right - the opening he'd cleared was very nearly big enough for me, and I didn't have to move too much before I could lie on my side and wriggle my way between the wall and the wreckage. I clambered back down into the hallway beyond and dusted myself off before locating the next flight of stairs, which led to the top floor.

The stairs were a little creaky, but I kept right to the edges, holding on to the handrails and skirting the pieces of debris that had fallen into the stairwell. I felt, on consideration, it was just as well that Mr Cataliades wasn't with me - his weight might have brought the stairs down ...

The wind was dropping a little now, but it was still whipping my damp hair across my face. I hunkered down near the top and took a minute to make a quick ponytail with an elastic from my pants pocket before reaching out for Eric again. The bond was stronger this time, although he was definitely trying to block it. I guessed it was only because he was pretty weak that he was allowing anything to leak through.

I stuck my head out and stared around at the top floor. Or what was left of it. Hell, Bertine had not been fooling around up here; it was a scene of total devastation. I'd thought the cave-in on the second floor was bad enough but my jaw dropped as I saw the wreck the little professor had made of Freyda's palace. It reminded me of the pictures of bombed buildings I'd seen from World War Two - mostly just the outer walls still standing, with the open space in between filled with all the broken masonry and drywall and pipework and rooftiles…

I looked up at the sky and saw the moon just breaking free from thinning clouds, which were beginning to draw off in long, silvery-grey columns towards the horizon. They looked strangely disciplined and I wondered where Bertine was, and if she was controlling them. Then I oriented myself as best I could, bearing in mind that the stairs I'd just come up were roughly in the centre of the building, before turning in a slow circle, trying to get a fix on where Eric was. There was no point in calling out loud, the wind was still too strong for me to be heard more than a few yards away.

There! I couldn't make out much between the heaps of rubble and broken beams but I got the general direction and as far as I could tell, he was at the far end, roughly where the Royal Apartments had been. That made sense and I started to make my way in that direction.

It was slow, careful going. The only light was a mixture of orange from the city lights below and silver from the half moon, and it threw very deceptive shadows. I had to slow my pace right down, as I couldn't see where I was putting my feet half the time, and the air was thick with swirls of dust, which got in my eyes.

As I avoided holes, splashed into puddles left by broken water-pipes, fell on my ass more times than I could count, and tried to find a way through the ruins without dislodging an avalanche, it began to dawn on me just how big Freyda's palace had been. Because I couldn't see more than a few feet in any direction I began to feel as though I was in a never-ending maze, surrounded by heaps of bricks and tiles

As I went, I called out to Eric over and over again, and I almost sobbed with relief when I finally got a voice in my head.

Sookie? Are you alright? The welcome tones were overlaid with anxiety, and I hurried to reassure him, pouring my relief and thankfulness into the bond.

Eric! Oh thank God! Yes, I'm fine, what about you? I can feel your pain. What's happening? Who's with you?

Relief. Don't worry, dear one, it's Pam ... I summoned her when ... I regained consciousness and she's … removing … the dagger … I will heal as soon … as she's finished.

There were curious breaks in his thoughts, which coincided with spikes of pain in the bond. I figured that was Pam trying to remove the shards of the dagger. Jeez, just how many were there?

He sounded very worried as he said are you sure you're alright?

I am now I know you're going to be okay. Freyda told me you were dead, but I knew you weren't. I knew she couldn't kill you.

She nearly did - she's very fast, and she dodged as I … struck for her heart, so I ended up hitting … her shoulder and that damned amulet … turned the blow straight back … on to me. I didn't hold back … so of course I took the full … force of the rebound. Freyda enjoyed that … she stood over me and laughed … as she told me how clever she had been …

I could practically hear him grinding his teeth in annoyance, and was glad to be able to tell him the good news. Well she's not laughing now, Eric. She's dead; gone for good.

Fierce exultation mixed with pride. Excellent. How did you … do it?

Unsuccessful attempt at indignation. Why do you assume it was me?

Amusement. Because I know your track record, lover.

Pouting. I haven't killed that many vampires.

You have killed more supes … than any human I have ever known … including that idiot Van Helsing … How did you kill her?

I let the drained vampires out of the refuge, and they tore her to pieces.

Wince. How long did she … take to die?

I shuddered at the memories of screaming and beckoning fingers … Way too long. But I left before they'd finished and came to find you.

Where … are you now?

I'm on the top floor of the palace, but there's a whole lot of crap between you and me. I'll be a little while yet.

I'll send Pam to help you.

No, I want her to help you first. You're injured.

There was a pause, and from the frustration coming through the bond I figured he was arguing with Pam. This was confirmed when a particularly sharp stab of pain came through and then his mindvoice again, laced with a faint trace of humour.

Apparently Pam agrees with you. She's … ow … insisting on helping me first …

Good. I'll be there as soon as I can. I started out towards where I knew he had to be, cheered by the conversation but it was still frustratingly slow going.

The wind had been steadily dropping, which is why I was able to hear what sounded like a faint groan as I was scrambling past a heap of what looked like brick mixed with a tangle of pipes and wires. I couldn't be sure, so I stopped and reached out with my other sense and found a vampire mind. It was underneath the pile next to me, and I paused, debating what to do. While I hesitated a whisper reached me. "Is somebody there? … help me … please …"

I took a step nearer. "Who are you?"

The whisper was fainter than ever. "... Erasmus … work for Queen Freyda … storm … badly injured … need help …"

I took a careful peek and made out a single shoe sticking out from under the debris at a nasty angle and winced at the thought of the pain the wearer must be in. "I'm not sure what I can do for you …" I nearly mentioned that I was only a human, but then decided against it - no point in advertising the nearness of a blood source to an injured vampire, even if he couldn't smell it. "Hang on and I'll call for help as soon as I can."

I turned to continue making my way towards Eric and Pam, but something snagged my ankle and I fell forward, grazing my palms badly on the rough surfaces all around me. I cussed in a way that would have had Gran reaching for the soap and tried to get to my feet, but my foot was trapped by whatever it was, so I twisted round to free myself. I reached for my shoe, and then squealed in shock as the mound of rubble heaved, slid, broke apart and a figure emerged. It was covered in dust, but I recognised it instantly.

Recognised and despised it.

William Compton. William Erasmus Compton.

Cursing myself for having forgotten that tiny detail, I jerked my foot back but his grip on my ankle didn't relax. He snatched at my other foot and then lifted them both into the air which left me on my back, completely helpless, looking up at him. He smiled. "That won't be necessary. I really don't need any help to deal with you."

"Bill! What do you want? Let me go!"

"I don't think so. You and I have some unfinished business." He laughed. "I knew your soft, human heart would never be able to resist helping someone who was injured." He shook his head in mock reproof. "How many times have I told you that vampires often turn on those who trust them? But you wouldn't listen, would you?"

"Eric will gut you for this - he's on his way here right now." I hoped and prayed that my bluff would be fact before too long - I didn't like the look in Bill's eyes, dark and hard as ebony. He transferred both my ankles to one hand, gripping them painfully as he dusted himself down with the other one and laughed softly.

"Nice try, Sookie; I heard what Queen Freyda told you, remember? I don't know how you got away from her, but Eric won't be helping you ever again."

So he didn't know she was dead. I wasn't going to enlighten him - who knew what he'd do if he thought he had a free hand? I sent Eric the strongest message I could. Bill's here - he's got me trapped. Help me!

Instant glacial rage. Where are you?

I looked round me, hunting for a landmark that would guide him to me. I can see a broken chimney, leaning inward, and there's a burst pipe below it, with water gushing out. Hurry, Eric!

I'm coming …

Bill was saying, "I'm sure she'll be very grateful to me when I return you to her … in a little while." Oh crap. I needed to distract him, or at least stall for as long as I could. I didn't know how weakened Eric was, but I knew he'd come even if he had to drag himself the full length of the palace.

I stared at Bill, and even in the half light I could see that his skin had a strange dark look, which I'd seen before. It meant he'd taken a beating from someone, and it didn't take an Einstein to figure out who.

"So, Pam kicked your sorry ass, huh?"

Bill frowned. "She hit me from behind." His tone was petulant, as though he expected vampires to fight fair. "But I would have beaten her if she hadn't run away."

That must have been when Eric summoned her. Nothing would keep her from her maker, but she must have been so frustrated at having to leave Bill still walking the earth. I snorted in derision. "Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, Bill. I'm sure you had her right where she wanted you."

His eyes narrowed, and his fangs emerged. "You never did know when to keep that mouth shut, did you, Sookie? Well, it's about time you learned, and I'm going to teach you."

Oh hell. I kicked furiously, and managed to slip one foot out of my sneaker, but he quickly caught it again. I said, "Freyda won't want you hurting me - she wants me for herself." He'd been well out of earshot when she'd announced her decision to kill me and co-opt Barry.

Now he grinned humourlessly. "Oh I'll leave you functional. She won't mind the odd mark or two. And she'll understand completely when she sees how badly hurt I am. Everybody knows vampires can't control themselves when they've been injured. I seem to recall explaining that to you once before, in Jackson, but clearly you need a reminder." And with that he let go of my ankles, but before I could move he fell on me and began ripping at my clothes.

Oh God. It was just like when we were trapped in the car trunk in Jackson and he'd hurt me so very badly. I nearly gave up right then, remembering in too-vivid detail exactly what had happened. I'd tried so hard to put the horror out of my mind; subconsciously I knew that if I'd ever given what he'd done its correct name, even in the privacy of my own head, I would have come to pieces and so I'd made excuses and refused to face the truth.

But this time was different, for all sorts of reasons. Then, I'd been in love with Bill, or so I'd thought; now, I saw him for what he truly was. Then, I'd been lacking in confidence and experience; now, I had more experience than I could ever have wanted. Then, I'd been recently staked and was freezing cold, cramped and suffocating from lack of air; now, I was in good health and had the full use of my lungs and consequently, my voice.

I screamed as loudly as I could, while I buried both hands in his hair and yanked on it with all my Viking-blood-enhanced strength. He hissed viciously but it was enough to keep his fangs off my neck, for a few moments at least. I wriggled and squirmed and fought to get a knee into his balls, but his weight was crushing me and I knew I couldn't keep it up for long.

He got a hand to my throat and began squeezing, as his right hand tore at my jacket and his knees forced my thighs apart. I let go his hair and began clawing at the strong fingers, but their grip tightened and he chuckled. "I've waited a long time for you to come to your senses and return to me, Sookie. But if you won't do it willingly, then you'll just have to be brought to heel, like a good pet. Freyda's very good at training her humans - I doubt you'll remain stubborn for long."

I wouldn't give up, but I couldn't scream any more, and the pressure was building in my skull. I cast out one last desperate thought, hurry, Eric! Hurry! as the edges of my vision began to go black.

There was a buzzing in my ears and I heard his hateful voice as if from a distance. "And if she goes back on her word and keeps you to herself, then at least I'll have given you this to remember me by." I felt the jacket shred and the cold night air on my skin, and gave one last, despairing heave, but Bill's weight was like a mountain on top of me and I was buried underneath it, trapped …

Suddenly there was a roar of rage, followed by a scream that nearly shattered my ear-drums and the pressure round my throat was gone. Then the weight that had pinned me down vanished and a familiar, beloved voice snarled, "you piece of shit! I will crucify you for this! Pam - hold him!" and then I felt a hand on my cheek, and a shadow fell across my face. Eric …

"Sookie?" I tried to turn my head towards the gentle caress, but it was too painful, so I gave up and lay motionless, ignoring Bill's screams and concentrating on the simple but extremely difficult task of dragging blessed air deep into my lungs. It was agony and ecstasy as it burned past my bruised throat and I whimpered with the pain. Then I heard a familiar faint crunch and Eric said, "open, dear one. Let me heal you."

I forced my lips apart and the thick drops of his blood fell between them, sweet and tangy at the same time. Swallowing was an exquisite torment, but I persevered and gradually the world came back into focus and the throbbing in my head began to fade. The screams had stopped too, which was a relief. Not that I minded Bill screaming, but the noise was an unwanted irritant.

I shivered, and Eric said, "Pam, your jacket." There was a pause and I felt fabric being placed across my bare body, shielding me from the night air, and then he raised me gently, drawing me to lean back against his chest. I flinched as he laid a hand over my bruised throat, but the coolness of his fingers soothed the burning there and I relaxed back against him, listening to the soothing whispers of his mind as he told me how proud of me he was, and how much he loved me, and that we were safe and nothing would separate us again ...

I felt as though I could rest forever, cradled in Eric's strong arms, but I knew there was something that had to be attended to. I found it hard to remember exactly what, but as the vampire blood went to work my mind cleared and my eyes flew open.

Bill! That rapist pig had to be dealt with! I struggled to sit up, and Eric helped me. Rage rolled through my veins as powerfully as the vampire blood, and with pretty much the same sort of effect. I set Pam's jacket aside and looked around, and sure enough there was Bill, on his belly, motionless, with a gag stuffed in his mouth. His left wrist was at a strange angle - I guessed Eric must have broken it when he'd plucked him off me, which would explain the scream.

Pam was kneeling next to him, but I was surprised that she was controlling him so easily; she only had a single hand on his back. No, not on his back - I looked a little closer and realised I couldn't actually see her hand …

"Eric? What's she …?" My voice was hardly more than a croak, but he heard me and smiled, his fangs flashing white. "It's a technique I taught her for restraining vampires. She's pushed her fingers and thumb through the flesh of his back and has her fist clenched round his spine. It's very effective."

Dear God, he wasn't kidding! No wonder Bill was lying so immobile - one twitch and she could rip his backbone clean out!

"Help me up, please."

"Are you sure, dear one?" I nodded, which was a lot less painful than before. He looked closely at my throat and seemed satisfied. "The redness has almost faded. My blood is taking effect." He rose to his feet, taking me with him, and set me down, making sure I was steady before letting me go. Then he picked up my sneaker and knelt to put it on for me before we walked over to where Pam held her prisoner.

She nodded to me. "Sookie. Eric tells me you've killed Freyda."

I shuddered at the memory. "Well, technically it was the other vampires, but I suppose you could say …"

She smiled. "You did well. I would much rather be your friend than your enemy; they don't seem to live long. And now what do you want to do with this offal?"

She looked at Eric, who said, "turn him over."

I frowned. "Why?"

"I want to see his face as he dies." His detached tone was chilling.

Pam pulled her hand out of Bill's back with a gross squelching sound and wiped it clean on his pants before flipping him over. He didn't move for several long minutes, while Eric asked me mentally to bring him up to date. I told him everything that had happened since he'd left with Freyda, including exactly what Bill had said and done, and then I thanked him for arriving in the nick of time.

My pleasure, lover.

But what about you? Did Pam get all the bits of dagger out?

Eventually. He squirmed slightly, as though uncomfortable at the memory, then shrugged it into the past. He was very good at this; I suppose after ten lifetimes of memories he had learned how to discard those he didn't want to keep. I wished I had the same ability, but I didn't have his mental discipline; I was stuck with a past that came creeping out of the dark corners of my room at night, when I lay alone in bed and had nothing to stop me remembering. So many evil memories …

Bill groaned as Pam pulled the gag from his mouth, but didn't open his eyes. He must have figured that the longer he played possum, the longer he'd live. Eventually Eric lost patience and kicked him in the side. "Look at me, you filth."

"Mercy." His voice was hoarse

Eric shook his head. "Not a word I'm familiar with. Now open your eyes or I'll have Pam pop them clean out of your skull and step on them."

"No … please …" Bill whined in fear as Pam tutted disgustedly.

"Why do I have to step on them?" she said. "I don't want eyeball jelly on my Blahniks - it's a bitch to remove. Couldn't we just feed them to him?"

"That's a good idea," Eric said thoughtfully. "Or maybe we'll just take one of them. That way he can watch himself die with the other one."

Pam agreed enthusiastically while Bill began begging frantically. "I'm sorry … please … I was wounded … I couldn't control myself … I thought you were dead - I would never have touched Sookie otherwise, but she came on to me … she betrayed you, Eric… you didn't hear what she was saying about you … it was her idea …"

I made a noise of disgust. As though Eric would ever believe that. Of course, Bill hadn't heard our mental conversation, so didn't know that Eric was in full possession of the true facts. I folded my arms and glared at Bill, who was still begging pathetically, although he didn't dare move with Pam standing over him, her fangs on full display.

As I listened to him trying to throw me under the bus to save his own skin, the last of the scales fell from my eyes, and I knew what needed to be done. What I needed to do. "Can we just finish him, please? I don't want to waste any more time and energy on him - We've got better things to do."

He frowned. "Are you sure? Dawn is a long way off - we have plenty of time to torture him if it would give you pleasure."

"I know, and I really appreciate the thought, but the Louisiana and Texas vampires could probably use some help right now - who knows what's going down over there?"

"You have a point. Very well." He turned away for a minute, scanning the ground, then found what he was looking for - a length of wood half-buried in the wreckage. He yanked it free and snapped it in two, studying both pieces before discarding one and coming back to me with the other. "This will do," he said. "Pam, hold him."

Bill squealed as Pam smiled and pinned him by his left arm and leg. Eric knelt on his other side, one huge hand resting on Bill's right shoulder. Bill's babbling for mercy ran down, and he licked his lips, seeing his death reflected in the cold eyes looking down at him. But that didn't seem right, somehow.


He didn't take his eyes from the snivelling vampire on the ground. "Yes, lover?"

"Can I do it?"

His head came round and he looked at me in astonishment. "You want to do it?"

I nodded. "Uh-huh. I know I've … uh … killed a lot of supes one way or another, but they've pretty much all been accidents or self-defence. This one I want to do with my eyes open."

"Why?" He didn't seem to have a problem with the suggestion - he was just curious.

"Closure." That was Pam. "I've read about this - humans like to have something called closure. It's their way of declaring something finished and moving on from it."

Eric considered this for a minute. "So it's another word for vengeance?"

Pam nodded. "It can be. Although it doesn't involve death very often."

"Then how can it be true vengeance?"

She shrugged. "Don't ask me. Maybe they think some offences don't deserve death."

Eric snorted. "Humans. They never know how to do things properly." He glanced round at me. "Present company excepted, of course. You seem to have a very good grasp of the important things in life." He held out the improvised stake to me. "Come, dear one; come and take your … closure."

I stepped forward and took it from his hand. Except for the jagged tip, it was smooth and polished, so had probably come from a real expensive item of furniture. It felt good in my hand as I hefted it thoughtfully and looked down at the supine vampire. "Show me the right spot, please, Eric," I said, and he smiled and yanked Bill's shirt open, showing me the exact point of entry.

I knelt and he helped me adjust the stake to the perfect angle. Bill's eyes widened. "Sookie …" he whispered. "Don't do this, please … remember how you loved me - how you still love me. I was only joking, I would never really hurt you. It was Freyda, she wanted me to do it. She told me to do it. Please, you know how much I love you. I love you more than Eric ever could … Sookie …"

I shook my head and tsked, leaning into the stake just a little. I'd never really realised quite how much the way he said my name irritated me. He fell silent, feeling the sharp point against his skin. "Well, Bill, I knew you were a lying, cheating, disloyal, rapist piece of shit, but I used to think you had some redeeming qualities and maybe weren't a complete pig. Apparently, I was wrong; you're bacon to the bone, Bill. Goodbye."

"No …!" he howled and convulsed against the hands holding him down, but I took a deep breath, raised the stake slightly and then jammed it into his body with all my renewed strength. It was the same feeling as the last time I'd done this - all the times I'd done this; the slight resistance followed by the sickeningly smooth slide into flesh. Bill's despairing cry was lost in the disgusting noise as his blood gushed out and coated my hands and arms. I shied back, revolted, and watched as he disintegrated in front of me, like Christopher Lee in a Hammer horror movie. But this was way more realistic - James Cameron-quality CGI realistic …

Eric's arm slipped round my shoulders as I forced myself to keep looking, breathing through my mouth, until it was over and there was nothing left. Just a black stain marking the site of the death of my first suitor, my first love, my first betrayer. And now my first execution.

Pam nodded in approval and Eric said, "beautifully done, lover. How do you … feel?" I could tell the question was a slightly uncomfortable one for him - he wasn't used to thinking about others' feelings, but for me he tried. That was another difference between him and the late unlamented Bill Compton; Eric was willing to change for my sake. Bill never had - he'd always expected me to change for him.

"Pretty good, actually. Pretty damn good."

Closure. At last.

I smiled and got to my feet and went to the nearest puddle to rinse the last of Bill off me. There was quite a lot of it. Pam came with me and helped me out of the remains of Mr C's windcheater before handing me her jacket again. I did the buttons up and smoothed my hair back into its ponytail as best I could, using the puddle as a mirror, then we went back to Eric. He held out a hand and pulled me to him. He placed a finger under my chin and tilted my face up. "You have some blood on your chin," he said, and he bent his head and gently licked it off. The licking morphed into a gentle kiss, which steadily grew into a passionate sharing of emotion and longing and relief, and our bond burned brightly between us, saying all the things we couldn't put into words…

A cough broke us apart and we looked round to see Mr Cataliades standing watching, with a benevolent smile on his round face.

"Oh, hey Mr Cataliades. How's Barry?"

"Recovering nicely, thank you, Miss Stackhouse. He wasn't too badly injured, after all, but I have important matters that need attending to, and I didn't want him left unprotected so I took him to Bertine. He couldn't be safer than with her - she knows his relationship to me, and she'll take care of him. Incidentally, I feel you were correct, earlier; it is time I spoke with him about his heritage and I'll do so shortly."

"Where is Bertine?" I glanced around. "She did a pretty stellar job with the tornado, by the way."

He smiled. "She went back to the basement to continue her research. She plans on moving the entire collection somewhere where scholars of all species can access it, and was talking about asking Durion for assistance. She has a lot of respect for him."

I asked a question that had been puzzling me for some time. "Mr C, how come the Vlakas wards on that cell didn't work on Bertine? Freyda seemed sure they would."

He chuckled. "Sloppy research. Bertine is of Greek descent, and Freyda thought she was a member of a very ancient species originally called ouff. This was twisted over the centuries into oaf, which is the literal meaning of the word Vlakas, sometimes translated as stupid. So, Freyda thought the wards would be the appropriate ones to use, but Bertine is not an ouff - she's a Telchine, originally from Rhodes, which is why she can control the weather - all her family can. But how are you?"

"Oh, I'm good, thanks. We've just dealt with Bill Compton - he won't be troubling us again."

He glanced at the stake which Pam had picked up and was hefting in a very professional manner, and raised an eyebrow. "I'm very glad to hear it. Is there anyone else who needs to be … dealt with?"

Eric considered for a moment, and said, "I don't think so. Freyda, Felipe and Bill were the only real danger to us, and they're all gone. How did you leave things in the annexe?"

"They were still fighting when I removed Barry. I didn't linger, but I think someone in authority needs to take control."

Eric frowned. "Stan outranks me - he should take charge if he's fit to do so."

"Ah - that's a sensible suggestion. By all means, let him deal with the situation, but I do feel your presence would be welcomed by your own followers; they're understandably anxious about your fate. I'll come and inform Freyda's people of her death, and deal with the vampires in the basement, but I think Texas would be grateful for your support."

"Very well. You go ahead and we'll join you shortly."

Mr C vanished and Eric told Pam to meet him at the door to the annexe. She nodded and turned away, disappearing between the piles of rubble.

Eric put his arms round me, and was about to fly us both down to the ground, when I said, "do we have to do this? I really don't want to go back there …"

"Why not? You will be quite safe with me - nothing will harm you."

"It's not that …. but that's where Freyda died, and … and it was horrible, Eric. I'm trying hard to forget about it, but it's real difficult and going back over there will just remind me." I could feel his puzzlement and tried to explain better. "I know you think I'm all tough and some sort of warrior-shieldmaiden type, but I'm not really. I do what I have to, when I have to, but I don't enjoy it and I really don't enjoy the memories I get left with. Please, honey, can you go and I'll just stay here 'til you come back. Or I could go down to the basement and see if Amelia's okay; I don't mind, honestly."

He looked at me closely, knowing I was sincere in this.

"So it's the memories that trouble you?"

"Yeah. I've got so many bad ones now, I don't want any more."

"You realise that we can do something about this?"

"What do you mean?"

"I told you once before that if I could glamour your pain away, I would. Well, now I can. If you would trust me to do so, I could remove all your bad memories for you."

I clutched his arm, hope almost choking me. "Really?"

He smiled. "Yes, really. I'm quite skilled at this - I've had a lot of practice over the centuries. We'd need to talk about what you wanted to lose and what you needed to keep - it wouldn't be sensible to remove all your memories of bad times, because memories of danger can keep you alive, but we can deal with the really unpleasant ones if we're careful."

"So I could forget about … Freyda's death? And Lorena's? And Adabelle Yancy's?" That had been a particularly nasty one…

"Of course. And Neave and Lochlan if you wish." Oh, that would be such a blessing ... He continued, "you can lose Bill's death too, if you want."

I shook my head. "No. That one I want to keep."

His smile widened in approval. "Good. So you like the idea?"

Oh God, to have a clean memory again. Well, cleaner … "Yes. I love the idea."

"Then we'll do it as soon as we have more time. Meanwhile, now that you know the memories will soon be gone for ever, do you think you'd be able to face coming with me? I don't want you away from me."

I nodded. "And I don't want you away from me. Ever."

"Then we're of one mind. Let's go and get this over with." Then he lifted me in his arms and we floated gently over the parapet and down to the leaf-strewn lawn. He put me down and we walked towards the annexe, but before we got there, he paused under one of the trees and turned to me.

"Speaking of memories, I have a very vivid recollection of the time I lost mine and you took me into your home and protected me. On the night of the battle with the witches, I suggested that you and I should go away together and you said it sounded like a marriage. Do you remember?"

I smiled. "Yes, I never want to lose that memory - it's one of my better ones. You were so sweet and sincere, and it was so hard to refuse you, but I think it was the right thing to do while you had amnesia. Why?"

"Because although we didn't marry then, we did pledge with the knife later, when I recovered my wits. I know that you struggled with that, even though it was for your own safety."

I was uncomfortable with the memory of the way he'd tricked me; I didn't know why he was bringing it up and tried to walk on, but he took my arm. "Wait. Please. That pledging was dissolved when we signed the divorce papers. Which gives us the perfect opportunity for a … do over? Is that the correct expression?"

I nodded slowly, unable to speak as my heart fluttered inside me. He continued, "we have already been married according to vampire custom, so this time I wish to follow the human ritual." And with that he knelt in front of me, took my hands and looked up at me, his blue eyes vivid in his pale face.

"Sookie, dearest one, I no longer have amnesia; I am in full possession of my mental faculties. So I hope this time you will not refuse me when I say that I love you and wish to stay with you. I want us to know each other's bodies in every way, night after night. You will never be poor again - I will work for you and you will have everything you ever wanted. Will you marry me, according to the human tradition this time, in a church if you wish it?"

His face blurred a little as tears filled my eyes. "Eric, I loved you then, even if I didn't know it, and that's why I refused you. I love you now, and I do know it, so I would be happy and honoured to marry you, in a church or any other way you'll have me."

He rose to his feet, towering over me, his eyes alight, his beautiful slow smile doing strange things to my insides. God, how I loved this vampire! He was everything I ever wanted in a man; strong, protective, sweet, honourable, and all mine

As he took me in his arms the memory of Bill Compton faded away as though it had never been, and I found myself looking forward to creating new and happy memories with my Viking for the rest of my life …

Well, there we have it. Unlike Sookie, we can't have our bad memories erased, but I hope this story has in some small way helped to heal the anguish caused by she-who-must-not-be-encouraged, and that you will be able to forget the carcrash that was DEA.

Thanks again for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.

Until the next time, I wish you all a fabulous Christmas, and a Happy Ever After.


PS As usual, if anyone has any ideas for a new storyline, please PM me ...